Authors: Ellis Peters
Tags: #Herbalists, #Cadfael; Brother (Fictitious Character), #Stephen; 1135-1154, #Mystery & Detective, #Monks, #General, #Shrewsbury (England), #Great Britain, #Historical, #Traditional British, #Large type books, #Fiction, #History
The Thirteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury.
BY REASON OF the prolonged cold, which lingered far into April, and had scarcely mellowed when the month of May began, everything came laggard and reluctant that spring of 1142. The birds kept close about the roofs, finding warmer places to roost. The bees slept late, depleted their stores, and had to be fed, but neither was there any early burst of blossom for them to make fruitful. In the gardens there was no point in planting seed that would rot or be eaten in soil too chilly to engender life.
The affairs of men, stricken with the same petrifying chill, seemed to have subsided into hibernation. Faction held its breath. King Stephen, after the first exhilaration of liberation from his prison, and the Easter journey north to draw together the frayed strings of his influence, had fallen ill in the south, so ill that the rumour of his death had spread throughout England, and his cousin and rival, the Empress Maud, had cautiously moved her headquarters to Oxford, and settled down there to wait patiently and vainly for him to make truth of rumour, which he stubbornly declined to do. He had still business to settle with the lady, and his constitution was more than a match for even this virulent fever. By the end of May he was on his way manfully back to health. By the early days of June the long sub-frost broke. The biting wind changed to a temperate breeze, the sun came out over the earth like a warm hand stroking, the seed stirred in the ground and put forth green blades, and a foam of flowers, all the more exuberant for having been so long restrained, burst forth in gold and purple and white over garden and meadow. The belated sowing began in jubilant haste. And King Stephen, like a giant breaking loose from some crippling enchantment, surged out of his convalescence into vigorous action, and bearing down on the port of Wareham, the most easterly still available to his enemies, seized both town and castle with hardly a graze to show for it.
“And is making north again now towards Cirencester,” reported Hugh Beringar, elated by the news, “to pick off the empress’s outposts one by one, if only he can keep up this storm of energy.” It was the one fatal flaw in the king’s military make-up that he could not sustain action for long if he failed to get instant results, but would abandon a siege after three days, and go off to start another elsewhere, squandering for no gain the energy devoted to both. “We may see a tidy end to it yet!”
Brother Cadfael, preoccupied with his own narrower concerns, continued to survey the vegetable patch outside the wall of his herb-garden, digging an experimental toe into soil grown darker and kinder after a mild morning shower. “By rights,” he said thoughtfully, “carrots should have been in more than a month ago, and the first radishes will be fibrous and shrunken as old leather, but we might get something with more juices in it from now on. Lucky the fruit-blossom held back until the bees began to wake up, but even so it will be a thin crop this year. Everything’s four weeks behind, but the seasons have a way of catching up, somehow. Wareham, you were saying? What of Wareham?”
“Why, that Stephen has taken it, town and castle and harbour and all. So Robert of Gloucester, who went out by that gate barely ten days earlier, has it slammed in his face now. Did I not tell you? The word came three days since. It seems there was a meeting back in April, in Devizes, between the empress and her brother, and they made it up between them that it was high time the lady’s husband should pay a little heed to her affairs, and come over in person to help her get her hands on Stephen’s crown. They sent envoys over to Normandy to meet with Geoffrey, but he sent back to say he was well disposed, no question, but the men sent out to him were unknown to him, name or reputation, and he would be uneasy in dealing with any but the Earl of Gloucester himself. If Robert will not come, says Geoffrey, no use sending me any other.”
Cadfael was momentarily distracted from his laggard crops. “And Robert let himself be persuaded?” he said, marvelling.
“Very reluctantly. He feared to leave his sister to the loyalties of some who were all but ready to desert her after the Westminster shambles, and I doubt if he has any great hopes of getting anything out of the Count of Anjou. But yes, he let himself be persuaded. And he’s sailed from Wareham, with less trouble than he’ll have sailing back into the same port, now the king holds it. A good, fast move, that was. If he can but maintain it now!”
“We said a Mass in thanksgiving for his recovery,” said Cadfael absently, and plucked out a leggy sow-thistle from among his mint. “How is it that weeds grow three times faster than the plants we nurse so tenderly? Three days ago that was not even there. If the kale shot up like that I should be pricking the plants out by tomorrow.”
“No doubt your prayers will stiffen Stephen’s resolution,” Hugh said, though with less than complete conviction. “Have they not given you a helper yet, here in the garden? It’s high time, there’s more than one’s work here in this season.”
“So I urged at chapter this morning. What they’ll offer me there’s no knowing. Prior Robert has one or two among the younger ones he’d be glad to shuffle off his hands and into mine. Happily the ones he least approves tend to be those with more wit and spirit than the rest, not less. I may yet be lucky in my apprentice.”
He straightened his back, and stood looking out over the newly turned beds, and the pease-fields that sloped down to the Meole Brook, mentally casting an indulgent eye back over the most recent of his helpers here in the herbarium. Big, jaunty, comely Brother John, who had blundered into the cloister by mistake, and backed out of it, not without the connivance of friends, in Wales, to exchange the role of brother for that of husband and father; Brother Mark, entering here as an undersized and maltreated sixteen-year-old, shy and quiet, and grown into a clear, serene maturity of spirit that drew him away inevitably towards the priesthood. Cadfael still missed Brother Mark, attached now to the household chapel of the Bishop of Lichfield, and already a deacon. And after Mark, Brother Oswin, cheerful, confident and ham-fisted, gone now to do his year’s service at the lazarhouse of Saint Giles at the edge of the town. What next, wondered Cadfael? Put a dozen young men into the same rusty black habits, shave their heads, fit them into a single horarium day after day and year after year, and still they will all be irremediably different, every one unique. Thank God!
“Whatever they send you,” said Hugh, keeping pace with him along the broad green path that circled the fish-ponds, “you’ll have transformed by the time he leaves you. Why should they waste a simple, sweet saint like Rhun on you? He’s made already, he came into the world made. You’ll get the rough, the obdurate, the unstable to lick into shape. Not that it ever comes out the shape that was expected,” he added, with a flashing grin and a slanted glance along his shoulder at his friend.
“Rhun has taken upon himself the custody of Saint Winifred’s altar,” said Cadfael. “He has a proprietorial interest in the little lady. He makes the candles for her himself, and borrows essences from me to scent them for her. No, Rhun will find his own duties, and no one will stand in his way. He and she between them will see to that.”
They crossed the little foot-bridge over the leat that fed the pools and the mill, and emerged into the rose garden. The trimmed bushes had made little growth as yet, but the first buds were swelling at last, the green sheaths parting to show a sliver of red or white. “They’ll open fast now,” said Cadfael contentedly. “All they needed was warmth. I’d begun to wonder whether the Widow Perle would get her rent on time this year, but if these are making up for lost time, so will her white ones be. A sad year, if there were no roses by the twenty-second day of June!”
“The Widow Perle? Oh, yes, the Vestier girl!” said Hugh. “I remember! So it’s due on the day of Saint Winifred’s translation, is it? How many years is it now since she made the gift?”
“This will be the fourth time we’ve paid her her annual rent. One white rose from that bush in her old garden, to be delivered to her on the day of Saint Winifred’s translation—”
“Supposed translation,” said Hugh, grinning. “And you should blush when you name it.”
“So I do, but with my complexion who notices?” And he was indeed of a rosy russet colouring, confirmed by long years of outdoor living in both east and west, so engrained now that winters merely tarnished it a little, and summers regularly renewed the gloss.
“She made modest demands,” observed Hugh thoughtfully, as they came to the second plank-bridge that spanned the channel drawn off to service the guest-hall. “Most of our solid merchants up in the town value property a good deal higher than roses.”
“She had already lost what she most valued,” said Cadfael. “Husband and child both, within twenty days. He died, and she miscarried. She could not bear to go on living, alone, in the house where they had been happy together. But it was because she valued it that she wanted it spent for God, not hoarded up with the rest of a property large enough to provide handsomely even without it for herself and all her kinsfolk and workfolk. It pays for the lighting and draping of Our Lady’s altar the whole year round. It’s what she chose. But just the one link she kept—one rose a year. He was a very comely man, Edred Perle,” said Cadfael, shaking his head mildly over the vulnerability of beauty, “I saw him pared away to the bone in a searing fever, and had no art to cool him. A man remembers that.”
“You’ve seen many such,” said Hugh reasonably, “here and on the fields of Syria, long ago.”
“So I have! So I have! Did ever you hear me say I’d forgotten any one of them? But a young, handsome man, shrivelled away before his time, before even his prime, and his girl left without even his child to keep him in mind… A sad enough case, you’ll allow.”
“She’s young,” said Hugh with indifferent practicality, his mind being on other things. “She should marry again.”
“So think a good many of our merchant fathers in the town,” agreed Cadfael with a wry smile,”the lady being as wealthy as she is, and sole mistress of the Vestiers’ clothier business. But after what she lost, I doubt if she’ll look at a grey old skinflint like Godfrey Fuller, who’s buried two wives already and made a profit out of both of them, and has his eye on a third fortune with the next. Or a fancy young fellow in search of an easy living!”
“Such as?” invited Hugh, amused.
“Two or three I could name. William Hynde’s youngster, for one, if my gossips tell me truth. And the lad who’s foreman of her own weavers is a very well-looking young man, and fancies his chance with her. Even her neighbour the saddler is looking for a wife, I’m told, and thinks she might very well do.”
Hugh burst into affectionate laughter, and clapped him boisterously on the shoulders as they emerged into the great court, and the quiet, purposeful bustle before Mass. “How many eyes and ears have you in every street in Shrewsbury? I wish my own intelligencers knew half as much of what goes on. A pity your influence falls short of Normandy. I might get some inkling then of what Robert and Geoffrey are up to there. Though I think,” he said, growing grave again as he turned back to his own preoccupations, “Geoffrey is far more concerned with getting possession of Normandy than with wasting his time on England. From all accounts he’s making fast inroads there, he’s not likely to draw off now. Far more like to inveigle Robert into helping him than offering much help to Robert.
“He certainly shows very little interest in his wife,” agreed Cadfael drily, “or her ambitions. Well, we shall see if Robert can sway him. Are you coming in to Mass this morning?”
“No, I’m away to Maesbury tomorrow for a week or two. They should have been shearing before this, but they put it off for a while because of the cold. They’ll be hard at it now. I’ll leave Aline and Giles there for the summer. But I’ll be back and forth, in case of need.”
“A summer without Aline, and without my godson,” said Cadfael reprovingly, “is no prospect to spring on me without preamble, like this. Are you not ashamed?”
“Not a whit! For I came, among other errands, to bid you to supper with us tonight, before we leave early in the morning. Abbot Radulfus has given his leave and blessing. Go, pray for fair weather and a smooth ride for us,” said Hugh heartily, and gave his friend a vigorous shove towards the corner of the cloister and the south door of the church.
It was purely by chance, or a symbol of that strange compulsion that brings the substance hard on the heels of the recollection, that the sparse company of worshippers in the parish part of the church at the monastic Mass that day should include the Widow Perle. There were always a few of the laity there on their knees beyond the parish altar, some who had missed their parish Mass for varying reasons, some who were old and solitary and filled up their lonely time with supererogatory worship, some who had special pleas to make, and sought an extra opportunity of approaching grace. Some, even, who had other business in the Foregate, and welcomed a haven meantime for thought and quietness, which was the case of the Widow Perle.
From his stall in the choir Brother Cadfael could just see the suave line of her head, shoulder and arm, beyond the bulk of the parish altar. It was strange that so quiet and unobtrusive a woman should nevertheless be so instantly recognisable even in this fragmentary glimpse. It might have been the way she carried her straight and slender shoulders, or the great mass of her brown hair weighing down the head so reverently inclined over clasped hands, hidden from his sight by the altar. She was barely twenty-five years old, and had enjoyed only three years of a happy marriage, but she went about her deprived and solitary life without fuss or complaint, cared scrupulously for a business which gave her no personal pleasure, and faced the prospect of perpetual loneliness with a calm countenance and a surprising supply of practical energy. In happiness or unhappiness, living is a duty, and must be done thoroughly.
A blessing, at any rate, thought Cadfael, that she is not utterly alone, she has her mother’s sister to keep the house for her now she lives, as it were, over her shop, and her cousin for a conscientious foreman and manager, to take the weight of the business off her shoulders. And one rose every year for the rent of the house and garden in the Foregate, where her man died. The only gesture of passion and grief and loss she ever made, to give away voluntarily her most valuable property, the house where she had been happy, and yet ask for that one reminder, and nothing more.